Leirblót and Matblót: The Ancient Germanic Tradition of Clay and Dough Idols

Written by Dyami Millarson

Leirblót and matblót are ancient practices involving the creation of clay and dough idols, respectively, as part of Germanic sacrificial rituals; lest one should miss it, the very essence of Germanc religion is blót. These fascinating folk religious artifacts provide a unique insight into the beliefs and practices of the Germanic peoples. This article will delve into the history, significance, and meaning behind these two types of idols, with a particular focus on Eiðsifaþingslög, the speculaaspop, and Iulagalt.

Eiðsifaþingslög: An Anti-Heathen Legal Text

The Eiðsifaþingslǫg, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is a collection of laws that has a clearly anti-Heathen slant. Chapter 24 of Eiðsifaþingslög, which is a collection of medieval laws that exhibit an undoubtedly anti-Heathen slant, provides an intriguing reference to the use of clay and dough idols, stating:

“Now, if an idol is found in an unlocked house, a food idol or clay idol made in the shape of a person from clay or dough, then one shall remove it from there with a clearing oath, sentenced to three marks if the oath fails.”

“Nú ef blót er funnit í húsi láslausu, matblót eða leirblót gert í mannslíki af leiri eða af deigi, þá skal hann þaðan leysa brott með lýrittareiði, sekr þrim mörkum ef eiðr fellsk.”

This quote highlights the cultural importance of leirblót clay idols and matblót dough idols in Germanic society. Cleasby and Vigfusson point out on page 70 of An Icelandic-English Dictionary that blót, or more correctly blœti according to them, in the if-clause (or ef-clause if you will), means idol rather than sacrifice, which also implies that blót, used in the two compounds of the then-clause (or þá-clause if you will), should be primarily understood as idol rather than sacrifice. It should, nevertheless, be added that as the word blót itself implies, these idols are inextricably linked to sacrificial rites.

Leirblót: The Clay Idol

Leirblót refers to the practice of creating idols from clay as part of Germanic religious rituals; these clay idols, shaped to resemble human figures, must have been used in sacrificial ceremonies as a way to communicate with and honour the Æsir. Clay, a natural material readily available in the environment, is an ideal medium for crafting such sacred objects.

Matblót: The Dough Idol

Similar to leirblót, matblót refers to the practice of creating idols from dough for religious purposes. These dough idols, also typically fashioned in human form, were used in rituals that involved offerings to the Gods. Dough, a product of grain, is an essential life-sustaining substance, and its use in the creation of idols shows the close connection between humans, the earth, and divine forces. Wheat veneration is also present in Kalash religion, demonstrating yet another similarity between the Germanoc and Kalash traditions.

The Dutch Speculaaspop of the Sinterklaasfeest

The Dutch speculaaspop, a traditional spiced cookie in the shape of a person, shares a striking resemblance to the ancient Germanic practice of creating dough idols. These cookies are an integral part of the sinterklaasfeest, a folk festival which may be considered Dutch Christmas or Yule, which celebrated the arrival of St. Nicholas or Othin. The matblót and leirblót practices of creating dough and clay idols for religious purposes bears a strong resemblance to the modern Dutch speculaaspop. Both traditions involve the creation of human-shaped figures from dough or similar food materials. While the matblót are offerings to the Gods, the speculaaspop is a festive treat enjoyed during the sinterklaasfeest.

It has faded from folk memory that the Dutch speculaaspop was associated with romance in earlier times (see here, here and here). In this earlier traditional context, the speculaaspop would be called a vrijer suitor and would be used be given to a girl in order to propose to her. The amusing aspect about this franky beautifully symbolic tradition is that if the girl returned the head of the vrijer to the boy, he was accepted as her prospective partner, but if she returned the legs, he better walk away. The romantic connection also makes one think of the Vanic love siblings Freyr and Freyja; the elder form of the Dutch verb vrijen woo alliterates with Freyr and Freyja, whilst the modern form also alliterates with vrouw woman, which is related to Freyja.

Iulagalt or Julagalt

Scandinavian countries have a rich baking tradition that often includes the creation of various shapes and figures, especially during Christmas/Yule. For example, Swedish pepparkakor gingerbread cookies, Norwegian pepperkaker gingerbread cookies and Danish peberkager gingerbread cookies are often made in various shapes, including human figures. Honninghjertes honey hearts are Danish heart-shaped peberkager. A Danish website dedicated to honningkager says about them:

“In the past, it was customary to go to the priest to have an engagement announced between a young couple. The priest on such an occasion took a honey heart, broke it in half, and gave one half to each to confirm the cordial union of the two.”

“Tidligere var det skik at gå til præsten for at få offentliggjort en forlovelse mellem et ungt par. Præsten tog ved en sådan lejlighed et honninghjerte, brød det midt over og gav en halvdel til hver for at stadfæste den hjertelige forening af de to.”

This forgotten romantic custom among the Danes is reminiscent of the forgotten Dutch vrijer. In both cases, these customs emphasise the importance of tangible, handmade symbols as a means of expressing affection and devotion between individuals. By extension, one can likewise understand how such gifts may be used to express devotion and affection for the Gods, such as the Vanir who are associated with love.

Footnote 9 on page 131 of the 1777 edition (= first edition) of John Aikin’s work titled A Treatise on the Situation, Manners and Inhabitants of Germany reads: “Many vestiges of this superstition remain to this day in Sweden. The peasants, in the month of February, the season formerly sacred to Frea, make little images of boars in paste, which they apply to various superstitious uses. See Eccard.” The footnote is related to this particular sentence in John Aikin’s rendition of the ethnographic work of Tacitus on the Germanic peoples: “They [= the Æstiī] worship the mother of the [G]ods; and as the symbol of their superstition, they carry about them the figures of wild boars.”

This reminds me of the shrines or altars with horse heads, the sanctity of goat stables, and other forms of animal veneration among the Kalash. We must bear in mind that the Gods may not only assume anthropomorphic (man-like) shapes, but also zoomorphic (animal-like) shapes, which I have already talked about in this article.

John Aikin mentions Eccard several times in his notes. On page 38 in particular, he connects the name of Eccard with the Latin work De rebus Franciæ Orientalis (exactly as John Aikin spells the title with ae as æ and no vowel lengths indicated). It becomes therefore apparent that by Eccard, he means Eckhart, whose name is written on the title page of the aforementioned two-volume Latin work as follows: Joanne Georgio ab Eckhart.

John Aikin’s reference to Eckhard is very unspecific, as it could be anywhere in Eckhart’s work. However, I know what he is referring to: page 410 of volume 1 of Eckhart’s work De rebus Franciae Orientalis, where Eckhart says:

“Hence, country people in Sweden even today, at the beginning of this feast, make bread in the shape of a boar, as Verelius attests in his notes on Hervarar saga, page 130. They call it Iulagalt, meaning the Boar of the Yule Feast, and they display it on their tables throughout this festive period, which lasts day and night with bread, ham, and other dishes, following the custom of their ancestors and for good luck, up to January 13th. “Many people,” Verelius says; “dry this artificial boar and save it for the true sowing time when seeds are to be entrusted to the soil; then, they crumble part of it into a vessel or basket from which seeds are to be scattered, mix it with barley, and feed it to the plowing horses, leaving the other part for the servants holding the summer work to eat: perhaps in this way, they hope to receive a more abundant harvest.” From this, I think the custom of making honeyed bread in various shapes for the Christmas feast originated, since the boar’s shape was prohibited because of its association with paganism.”

“Vnde Ruſticani in Suecia homines hodieque in principio feſti hujus litorum in panem figura verris, Verelio in notis ad Hervarar fagam pag. 130. teſte, conficiunt, quem Iulagalt h.e. Iulii feſti Verrem, vocant, eumque per omnes mini Orio hujus feſti dies, quo menſas diu noctuque pane, perna , aliisque ferculis in ſtruunt, majorum more et ominis cauſa uſque ad diem 13.Ianuarii in iisdem menſis exponere ſolent. Plures, inquit Verelius, verrem iſtum fictum ficcant, et ad veris tempus, cum ſemina ſulcis ſunt credenda, ſervant: tum partem ejus comminut am in vas vel corbem, ex quo ſemina funt diſpergen da, immittunt, hordeoque permixtam equis aratoribus, alteram ſervis ſtivam tenentibus comedendam relinquunt: ſpe forte uberioris meſſis percipiendae. Hinc et ortam puto conſuetudinem fub feſtum Natalitiorum panes mellitos fub variis figuris conficiendi, cum Verris figura ob Ethniciſmum fieri prohiberetur.”

Although called Iulagalt in the works of Eccard, Verelius, Heumann, and Quel, the boar-shaped dough idols are referred to as Julagalt in other sources. Hampson says on pages 92-94 of his work that “Christmas or Yule […] was, as appears from the account of Procopius, originally no other than the Gothic [= Germanic] pagan festival of Jul, celebrated professedly in honor of Thor, the son of Odin […], but really in honor of the sun at the winter solstice. Among the northern nations, this season was the great festival of sacrifice, and the Danes seem to have immolated human victims […]. The Goths [= Germanic peoples] used to sacrifice a boar; for this animal, like the horse among the Persians, was […] sacred to the sun. […] [S]everal traces of the sacrifice of a boar to the sun at the winter solstice, have been preserved. In the story of loki and the dwarf, related in the Edda, the golden boar is given to Freyr, to whom and his sister Freya, as [D]eities of animal and vegetable fecundity, the northern nations offered that animal […]. […] [A]t this day [= winter solstice], it is customary among the peasants in the northern parts of the continent to make bread during Christmas in the form of a boar pig, which they place upon the table with bacon and other dishes; exposing it, as a good omen, [during] the whole [duration] of the feast. They call this bread Jugagalt, and sometimes Sunnugoltr [sic], because it was dedicated to the sun.”

Hampson could have mentioned Baldr in Thor’s stead with regards to the sun. Hampson’s comparison with Persian (Indo-Aryan) horse veneration brings the similarity between Germanic horse veneration and Kalash (Indo-Aryan) horse veneration to mind, which I discussed briefly in this article. There is an etymological connection between the second elements of the compounds Jula-galt and Sonar-göltr: Swedish galt is cognate with ᚴᛅᛚᛏᛦ (göltr or galtr) and ᚴᛅᛚᛏᛁ (galti) which means boar in Old Scandinavian. The first element of Iulagalt/Julagalt is cognate with Old East Norse ᛁᚢᛚ (iūl) Yule and Old West Norse ᛁᚬᛚ (jól) Yule. Therefore, Iulagalt/Julagalt, which may be spelled as ᛁᚢᛚᛅᚴᛅᛚᛏ in Younger Futhark, means Yule boar, which is fitting for a Yule-related boar idol. Hampson’s form sunnugoltr is based on Verelius’ reading; for Verelius interprets sunnugoltr in his vocabulary list at the end of Hervarar Saga på Gammal Götska med Olai Vereli Uttvlkning och notis as “Verres ſoli conſecratus” (boar consecrated to the sun), showing that he thought the compound consisted of ᛋᚢᚾᛅ (sunna) sun and ᚴᛅᛚᛏᛦ (göltr or galtr) boar, which would have supported Hampson’s view that Germanic boar sacrifice is related to the sun. However, even if Verelius’ etymology is incorrect, a logical argument can still be made in support of a connection with the sun:

  • Sonargöltr is related with Iulagalt.
  • Iulagalt, as suggested by its first element, is connected with Yule.
  • Yule is connected with winter solstice.
  • Winter solstice has to do with the sun (because it is the day when the sun reaches its lowest daily peak elevation in the sky, resulting in the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year).
  • Sonargöltr is connected with the sun through Yule’s connection with winter solstice.

Hampson’s extended use of Goths and Gothic to refer to the early Germanic peoples in general is akin to my extended use of Nordic religion to refer to Germanic religion. Just as Proto-Nordic language, culture, and religion must have been very close to Proto-Germanic language, culture, and religion, Gothic language, culture, and religion must have been very close to Proto-Germanic language, culture, and religion; in this view, Nordic and Gothic may, by extension, be used to refer to all that is linguistically, culturally, and religiously Germanic. In my writings, I will certainly adopt Hampson’s language which conflates Germanic with Gothic, since the tradition of referring to Germanic peoples in general as Goths has merit whilst it highlights the likeness between Germanic and Gothic, just as such use with Nordic highlights the likeness between Germanic and Nordic; history is witness to the fact that it is traditional for Germanic peoples to claim the the legacy of the Gothic identity, and so it is not strange to continue this custom. Furthermore, even when one uses words in such extended or broad senses, they can still be used in their original or narrow senses. It is natural or normal for new senses to be derived from old senses, and it is hence also natural or normal for original senses to be extended so as to be made more useful for general purposes. I have previously written about Gothic religion in the narrow sense, but I will in the future also write about Gothic religion in the broad sense, as I recognise that the semantic extensions of the terms Gothic and Nordic, which are instances of pars prō tōtō stylistically speaking, may be conducive to garnering interest for the topic of the common genealogy or origin of the Germanic languages, cultures, and folk religions; Proto-Norse and Gothic are almost Proto-Germanic since they ultimately go back to it, and therefore, although we can point to developments that increasingly distinguished Proto-Norse and Gothic from their linguistic ancestor over time when we go forward in time, the lines become actually more blurred when we go backward in time — this is the paradox that is inherent to the linguistic history of Germanic. It is customary in modern times to draw up strict and rigid distinctions, but we should also understand the fluidity of those distinctions; as Germanic religiosity teaches us, lines tend to be way more blurred in reality and so distinctions — upon closer consideration by taking into account different perspectives — may not be as consequential or important as we initially made them out to be, of which the non-distinction between animism and polytheism in the Germanic context is a good example.

Significance and Meaning

The presence of leirblót and matblót in Germanic religious practices reflects the importance of materiality and symbolism in Germanic spiritual beliefs. The act of creating idols in human form highlights the belief in the divine nature of humanity and the intimate relationship between people and the ÆsirVanir-Álfar group, while creating idols in animal form highlights the divine nature of animals and the intimate relationship between animals and the Æsir-Vanir-Álfar group. The use of natural materials, such as clay and dough, reinforces the connection between the human creators and the natural world, and the Æsir, Vanir, and Álfar who govern, or inhabit, nature and humanity.

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